THE FLAW IN VET­TEL’S RAC­ING GE­NIUS

Autosport (UK) - - COVER STORY/VETTEL -

Vet­tel’s de­sire to “go for it no mat­ter what” has yielded some stun­ning re­sults for Fer­rari this year. The fact he has qual­i­fied on the front row 13 times in 18 at­tempts so far, in the sec­ond fastest car on the grid, stands as fur­ther tes­ta­ment to what we’ve al­ways known about Vet­tel – that he is a su­perb qual­i­fier who so of­ten can find a few tenths ex­tra from nowhere when it re­ally mat­ters. Con­trast that with team-mate Raikko­nen, who has made the front row just five times in 2017.

Para­dox­i­cally, Vet­tel has also been found want­ing at some of the most crit­i­cal mo­ments. He has thrown away 38 points all on his own by first driv­ing into Hamil­ton be­hind the safety car in Azer­bai­jan and cop­ping a 10-sec­ond penalty – which turned a likely race win into fourth place – then de­fend­ing ag­gres­sively from Ver­stap­pen af­ter a poor start from pole in Sin­ga­pore, which trig­gered a three-way col­li­sion with Raikko­nen and wiped a fur­ther 25 po­ten­tial points off the board.

The Baku in­ci­dent is par­tic­u­larly trou­bling, sug­gest­ing a vul­ner­a­bil­ity in Vet­tel’s psy­che that can­not keep his emo­tions in check when he be­comes a vic­tim of per­ceived in­jus­tice. In the heat of the mo­ment, Vet­tel felt Hamil­ton had dan­ger­ously brake-tested him. Vet­tel’s com­po­sure de­serted him and the red mist took over, with se­ri­ous con­se­quences for his ti­tle as­pi­ra­tions and his stand­ing within mo­tor­sport.

And this act of road rage is not the first time we have seen Vet­tel lose his cool un­der pres­sure. He was forced to apol­o­gise to the FIA af­ter the 2016 Mex­i­can Grand Prix, when he launched into a foul-mouthed tirade at race direc­tor Char­lie Whit­ing over the FIA’S de­ci­sion not to pe­nalise Ver­stap­pen’s de­fen­sive tac­tics.

There is an oc­ca­sional clum­si­ness to Vet­tel’s driv­ing in these peak mo­ments of stress too, like tag­ging the back of Hamil­ton’s Mercedes at Turn 3 in Mex­ico this year, af­ter be­ing over­taken by Ver­stap­pen at Turns 1 and 2, and Vet­tel some­times seems un­will­ing to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for his mis­takes. In these ways, he and Schu­macher are quite sim­i­lar.

“He’s Ger­man, but doesn’t have this at­ti­tude of be­ing calm and just fo­cused, so he’s far more, in a race car, Ital­ian,” says Marko of Vet­tel. “More than you’d ex­pect from a Ger­man, es­pe­cially when you talk to Vet­tel nor­mally, but it shows how much he puts into his ef­forts.

“Schu­macher was also very fo­cused, but he never had this emo­tional thing like Seb has some­times. He [Vet­tel] has his be­lief of hon­esty and jus­tice. I wouldn’t say that makes it a vul­ner­a­bil­ity, but if he doesn’t feel guilty he wouldn’t ad­mit [guilt] just for diplo­matic rea­sons.”

Vet­tel’s 2014 team-mate Ric­cia­rdo agrees Vet­tel’s emo­tions can some­times cloud his judge­ment in­side the car, but says his ap­proach out­side of it is as pro­fes­sional as they come.

“From what I can see with him, I think that in­stant, that spur of the mo­ment, he can ob­vi­ously get quite re­ac­tive or emo­tional,” Ric­cia­rdo ex­plains. “But I think once that spike of adren­a­line comes back down, he has a good ap­proach to things.

“Mex­ico last year and all that with the ra­dio and the in­ci­dent, I’m sure he was pretty vo­cal at first but then he was like, ‘Al­right, maybe I’ll re­assess what just hap­pened’. [He’s] fairly emo­tional, but I think the emo­tion comes from the pas­sion. He’s one of the most pas­sion­ate guys on the grid, and I know he lives F1 prob­a­bly more than most of us.

“Any time I beat him in 2014, I’m sure when we crossed the fin­ish line he was pissed, but once we got back to the en­gi­neers’ [room], he al­ways shook my hand and con­grat­u­lated me. I think once the adren­a­line calms down he’s got a solid ap­proach.”

Vet­tel was adamant he did noth­ing wrong in Azer­bai­jan ini­tially, but grad­u­ally ac­cepted the er­ror of his ways, is­su­ing an apol­ogy to the FIA for cre­at­ing a “dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion” through his driv­ing, and sub­se­quently ad­mit­ting he felt he

“let the team down” with his ac­tions in that race.

With­out the points lost to that red-mist mo­ment and the crash he trig­gered in Sin­ga­pore, Vet­tel would still be in proper ti­tle con­tention now – even al­low­ing for those un­for­tu­nate Fer­rari en­gine re­li­a­bil­ity prob­lems in Malaysia and Ja­pan.

Vet­tel now con­cedes that Baku “was very clear” as a mis­take on his part, but he is less con­vinced by ar­gu­ments that he should have driven dif­fer­ently in Sin­ga­pore.

“Baku was very clear – what hap­pened, hap­pened,” Vet­tel says. “Did I do my­self a favour? No, be­cause I could have won the race with the is­sue Lewis had af­ter. Oth­er­wise, I don’t think we had the speed to chal­lenge, so the safety car was my, let’s say, chance for glory. It turned out dif­fer­ently.

“For Sin­ga­pore, I think those things hap­pen. I’ve looked at it plenty of times, I do un­der­stand the peo­ple that say, ‘Ah, it’s all wrong!’ Do I agree? Not nec­es­sar­ily, be­cause put your­self in the car, how much mir­ror you have to watch, all I could see was Max. If you then think about an­other guy, an­other guy, an­other guy, well where do you stop?

“Then peo­ple try to in­ter­pret it – a lot of in­tel­li­gence in that mo­ment where other peo­ple went OK, then stu­pid­ity when it ended up in a crash. But then you could also ar­gue it’s just luck or no luck, or just how it came to­gether. Then there are other rea­sons. I had an av­er­age start, Kimi had a great start. In the­ory Kimi should have a worse start than I had, but it hap­pened that the grip was so good that he had a bet­ter start, what­ever.

“So, in the end, it is a rac­ing in­ci­dent. For sure, it went bad for me, it went su­per well for Lewis, be­cause he didn’t have to do any­thing and he found him­self in the lead af­ter three cor­ners. But that’s how it goes some­times.

“If it works in your favour, you don’t spend so much time think­ing about it. It all comes down to ‘would you do much dif­fer­ently?’ Prob­a­bly not, be­cause I don’t think my move over to Ver­stap­pen was overly ag­gres­sive. I stopped in the mo­ment where I got the hit to give him the room to dive into Turn 1 to cut back on the in­side, but it never came to that point…”

What can­not be dis­puted is Vet­tel’s dig­nity in de­feat. Af­ter the dis­ap­point­ment of re­tir­ing early in Ja­pan, he made a point of shak­ing hands with ev­ery mem­ber of his team, and when the ti­tle bat­tle was fi­nally con­ceded to Hamil­ton in Mex­ico, Vet­tel de­clared pub­licly and re­peat­edly that Hamil­ton was

“the bet­ter man” in 2017.

It is also clear, like Schu­macher be­fore him, that Vet­tel has gal­vanised Fer­rari and grad­u­ally brought the team into his par­tic­u­lar or­bit. You can see his true greatness in these lat­ter mo­ments of bit­ter dis­ap­point­ment – ral­ly­ing his team, prais­ing their ef­forts, ask­ing for them to be pro­tected (from Maranello’s po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions as much as ex­ter­nal crit­i­cism) – dur­ing their pe­riod of pain. He’s urg­ing them on to new heights in the fu­ture, show­ing that he is a leader as well as a great driver.

“Se­bas­tian is men­tally very strong – he’s very com­mit­ted, very de­ter­mined. He’s very sharp, he misses noth­ing, so his com­plete pack­age is as­ton­ish­ingly good,” says Red Bull chief en­gi­neer Paul Mon­aghan. “His en­tire ap­proach of at­ten­tion to de­tail, knowl­edge of the car, un­der­stand­ing, his abil­ity to adapt to the car bal­ance as it evolves in the race – these are the great qual­i­ties of Se­bas­tian.

“You see it in Max and Daniel too. They’re clever and they adapt. Hav­ing worked with Fer­nando, he was the same. When I was race en­gi­neer [at Re­nault] he was con­demned to some ap­palling cars! His abil­ity to adapt was ab­so­lutely as­ton­ish­ing. Lap af­ter lap he’s on it, and Se­bas­tian is the same, and Lewis is the same.

“To my mind, you look at Daniel, you look at Max, you look at Fer­nando, you look at Se­bas­tian, you look at Lewis – they are con­sis­tently good. They do not have bad runs. They are al­ways quick – on a Fri­day, a Satur­day, a Sun­day. It is that abil­ity to al­ways be com­pet­i­tive, to al­ways ex­tract the best from it, that car­ries them to the lev­els they reach.”

And through their good, bad or ugly mo­ments, the true greats never give up. Vet­tel senses he is close to achiev­ing his dream with Fer­rari. Next year he will be back, aim­ing to be bet­ter and stronger than he was this year, and to fi­nally top­ple Mercedes from its perch – once and for all.

Vet­tel is still re­luc­tant to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the Sin­ga­pore crash

Vet­tel’s con­duct has made for front-page news and con­flict with the au­thor­i­ties

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